For most of us who grew up working on a farm, we have been told since we were young about the importance of colostrum. It is the founding principle for feeding calves and preparing them for a productive life.
Michael Steele, University of Guelph, presented “Nutritional regulation of gut function in calves: colostrum and milk.” He shared the details about rearing newborn calves, and why those processes are so important. Calves that receive high-quality colostrum have higher calf survival, lower age at conception, and will yield more milk through the second lactation.
On the flip side, failure to receive passive immune transfer delays age at first calving, decreases milk and fat production in the first lactation, drops average daily gain through 180 days, and negatively impacts feed efficiency.
How much to feed
Calves can drink more than we initially thought. If left alone with its dam, calves typically nurse six to 12 times per day for the first few weeks of life. However, that unmonitored behavior can cause abomasal inflammation and lesions, milk overflow into the rumen, ruminal acidosis, and decreased passage rate and digestion. Steele recommends 4 liters of high-quality colostrum for the first meal and then a smooth transition to other liquid nutrition. Previous data supported feeding 2 liters of colostrum per feeding, but most calves can drink up to 5 liters without evidence of ruminal overflow. He said one of the best additions to calf feeding equipment are 3 and 4 liter nursing bottles, which meet current calf needs.
With colder temperatures, energy needs for calves grow. To meet this need, Steele suggests adding one more meal daily or increasing the meal size. Double feeding dry matter intake with milk replacer is also an option. “Cold stress affects growth rates on many farms,” stated Steele.
When feeding milk replacer, Steele challenged listeners to study the ingredients – particularly looking for lactose. If the lactose composition is too high, it can impact gut health, sensitivity, and osmolarity. “Use high-quality ingredients so meals are consistent,” concluded Steele.
There are options
What form of colostrum is best? In regard to fresh, pasteurized, or dried colostrum, he noted several differences and why each option was viable.
Fresh colostrum is tailored to the calf and contains all the bioactive molecules and cells; however, there is the opportunity for contamination and it is difficult to test quality. There is a reduced bacterial load with pasteurized colostrum, as well as the ability to assess the quality. The downside is that pasteurization can destroy healthy bacteria and immune/developmental cells. The bioactive molecules may become less active if they are not managed properly. Pasteurizers must be carefully monitored as a mismanaged unit can backfire. It should be calibrated to maintain a uniform output. A few degrees different from the recommended temperature can affect the colostrum.
The third option is dried colostrum. It is convenient, clean, and consistent in quality.
Getting the colostrum into the newborn calves needs to be done in a timely manner. Research shows that there is little difference if a calf gets colostrum between one to six hours after birth. However, there is a drastic drop if colostrum ingestion is pushed to 12 hours.
As a method of delivery, Steele shared research where there was not passive transfer difference between a calf receiving colostrum from an esophageal tube feeder and a calf that willingly drinks colostrum from a bottle.
The switch from colostrum to another source of liquid nutrition should be gradual. After the two colostrum feedings, Steele recommends transition milk (second to fifth milking) be fed for the first week. Starting with the second week of life, traditional milk or a milk replacer diet would be fed.
In addition to antibodies, colostrum is higher in lactoferrins, Immunoglobulin F-I, Immunoglobulin F-II, insulin, relaxin, leptin, and leucocytes. These items aid in immunity, reproductive development, gut effects, and hypothalamus development. Additionally, colostrum has omega-6, polyunsaturated fats, lipids, and carbohydrates. Steele stated with excitement, “There is so much more to uncover” when talking about colostrum’s additional benefits.
Over 26% of calves receive antibiotics – a number far too high for Steele’s liking. Nearly half of this administration is for digestive disorders, which he believes can be minimized with proper colostrum and transition milk protocols. He is opposed to the mindset of antibiotics first. It is not ideal for calves or consumer acceptance.
During feeding, calves are exposed to outside factors, such as the cleanliness of the equipment used to deliver the nutrients. Poorly washed bottles, nipples, and esophageal feeders can harbor bacteria and put the young calf at risk. Just over half of the colostrum samples in research shared by Steele were under 100,000 cfu/mL, which is the cutoff point for desired colostrum. However, 45% were too high, including 17% that were over 1,000,000 cfu/mL.
Colostrum quality varies with each cow. Steele recommended purchasing a Brix refractometer, which is available on Amazon for about $25. He called it an excellent investment.
Steele’s summation was, “Cleanliness, quickness, quality, and quantity equals success when it comes to delivering colostrum.”
The author is the online media manager and is responsible for the website, webinars, and social media. A graduate of Modesto Junior College and Fresno State, she was raised on a California dairy and frequently blogs on youth programs and consumer issues.
Join us next month: Wisconsin dairy producers Scott Pralle and Pam Selz-Pralle present “The world record milk cow: she’s just one of the herd” on Monday, March 9, at noon (Central time).